Friday, November 17, 2023

The spectre and the soul: from Derrida to Netflix

 When Derrida wrote Spectres of Marx in the 90s, triumphalist neoliberalism, succeeding the collapse of Communism in the West, was ready to treat Marx and Marxism as an intellectual frolic, of no more importance, now, than Madame Blavatsky. Derrida, to his eternal credit, rediscovered the Gothic vocabulary within which Marx’s rhetoric was immersed, and took the spectre and haunting as ways of mediating a sense that we had somehow missed, as a culture, the alternative future we had worked for and expected. We, so to speak, stood the better angels of our nature up against the wall, executed them, and had the servants drag them away and bury them.

In an essay on the “spectral turn” and “hauntology” (that o so 00s term of art), Kit Bauserman, at the Journal of the History of Ideas site, surveys the way ghosts and spirits have returned in the humanities as “pure metaphors” or social phenomena. The idea that Derrida uses the ghost of the spectre as a “pure metaphor” is at the heart of the essay – and I think it is wronghearted, since it is not at all clear what is meant by the phrase. What is the spectre a metaphor for?
In Bauserman’s essay, the philosophical and literary initiates into the spectral turn are urged to look at anthropology and ethnography, a very good suggestion. However, as is so often the case in disquisitions about hauntology, one word seems exorcized: the word “soul”.
Personally, I think part of what has happened, has been happening for a long time to that Palefaced mook, Western Man, is a de-souling. The soul is no longer serious business. Hauntology, ghosts, horror, the gothic – all of this is dandy, we can study this. But there is no study of the soul and what happened to it.
The soul was a part of the descriptive picture of human life in the cosmos not just for philosophers and preachers and poets, but for every peasant and city slicker. The soul might or might not require the body, it might or might not survive death – hibernating, up in Heaven, down in hell – but it was an invisible but palpable part, or center, of the material self.
Horror, which seems to be the key genre in movies and tv at the moment, keeps the soul around for grins, but has really substituted for it a kind of manic violence, the cosmological coordinate of the dwindling human kindness we all expect from the post-apocalypse.
The soul and its vocabulary has long been a matter of bad taste and sentimentality. Soul speak – usually this is the prelude to some awful downloading of phobias – racial, sexual, classicist, etc. How the soul ended up like this should be, well, entertained by hauntological studies.
The devaluation of the soul is definitely an ongoing event in intellectual culture. It has left a hole. In Baverman’s essay, it is, in this way, like the spectre:
Spectrality studies’ history makes clear how the use of ghosts as a metaphor became widespread. The Spectralities Reader, a spectral studies anthology edited by Maria del Pilar Blanco and Esther Peeren, chronicles the field’s development. It likely received its name from Bernard Steigler’s 1993 interview with fellow philosopher Derrida, titled “Spectrographies.” The interview, included in Ecographies of Television, clarifies the difference between the “ghost” and the “specter.” The “ghost” is a revenant, a past that keeps returning to the present reality. It is undead. The “specter” is somewhat different. It is of the “invisible visible.” It is much like a missing puzzle piece, its conspicuous absence defining its presence.”
I would distinguish, though, between the conspicuous absence of the spectre and my argument about the soul – its absence is inconspicuous. The soul’s abdication is, to my mind, a much bigger deal than the death of God – or perhaps I should say, they are both similar systems for a world historical loneliness. This is why the horror genre is located on one of the great fault lines of our contemporaneity – it recognizes these symptoms.

Monday, November 13, 2023

The marriage crisis game


A funny thing happened on the way to the marriage crisis.

In the Reagan years, as Susan Faludi explains in her book, Backlash, a study that seemed to show that college educated women faced a “marriage crunch” in the “marriage market” got saturation coverage in the press, which was well satisfied with the idea that  feminism ruined everything.

The numbers were bogus – it turned out that the study that showed the marriage crunch used doubtful assumptions and was disputed by numerous other studies – but it turned out that this didn’t matter. The rightwing phobic reaction to feminism attached itself to the study symptomatically, the way a panicked child might clutch a teddy bear, and it was not about to have its symbol taken from it.

Periodically, since, the right has stirred up marriage crises, on the principle that you can never gull the folks too much, enunciated by the immortal words of the Duke and Dauphin in Huckleberry Finn, whose signs advertising “The Royal Nonsuch” contained the sentence: LADIES AND CHILDREN NOT ADMITTED. “If that don’t draw em,” the Duke said, “I don’t know Arkansaw.”

Arkansaw has become national since Mark Twain’s time, and it is populated mainly by men who, between bemoaning the fact that the guv’mint only favors blacks and that elections are frauds, also throw in a bit about ugly feminist women. Arkansaw is like that.

However, the message about the “marriage market” – a phrase that wreaks of the University of Chicago economics department – has, funnily enough, begun to fall on deaf ears. The distaff side – all those women out there – have had enough.

One feels the desperation creeping into the Royal Nonesuch. The American Enterprise Institute, that beacon of University of Chicago thinking, has been sponsoring something called the National Marriage Project. One of its members, a UVA prof named Brad Wilcox, has written a book whose very title is a Fox News anxiety dream: GET MARRIED: Why Americans must defy the elites and tax the wealthy at a ninety percent rate… oops, got that title wrong. Here it is: “why Americans must defy the elites, forge strong families, and save civilization.” The AEI, as is well known, loves them some civilization, the saving of which cannot, however, involve peace, saving the earth from climate change catastrophe, or taxing the wealthiest.

But how bout that marriage, ladies?

I was pleased to see that this book, which comes out, heh heh on Valentine’s Day, received a pre-emptive first strike by Anna Louie Sussman on the NYT opinion page: She points out some simple things. For instance, the absolutely rotten state of Arkansaw, i.e. American malehood.

“But harping on people to get married from high up in the ivory tower fails to engage with the reality on the ground that heterosexual women from many walks of life confront: that is, the state of men today. Having written about gender, dating, and reproduction for years, I’m struck by how blithely these admonitions to get married skate over people’s lived experience. A more granular look at what the reality of dating looks and feels like for straight women can go a long way toward explaining why marriage rates are lower than policy scholars would prefer.”


She does not go into the reasons for this, but I would venture a few – all of which are tied to the Neoliberal culture.

Let’s pick one: the decline and the abasement, from the poohbahs on high, of culture and the humanities.

The very terms that the Chicago school employs – the marketization of everything – is a part of this culture. The market model seems more engineering like, more scientific. It isn’t. It is a pretty lousy model for marriage in the age of the love marriage – a model that grew up in the developed countries and became dominant for most people in the 19th century. Without dowries, without the patriarchal household, marriage becomes something very different. It becomes, I would say, a different story.

The story – romance, soap opera, tragedy, comedy – is at the heart of the love marriage. And stories and songs are just the kind of thing that the new Dukes and Dauphins find laughable. Educate your kids with stories and songs? Where is the hard science that’s gonna make them docile button pushers?

The narrative deficit in the U.S. is very gender-defined. Men don’t read. Men have an amazing paucity of critical capacity to analyze language or larger narrative patterns. Men tend to think that there is some fatal, ontological divide between the intellect and feeling. Etc., etc.

Of course, this is not true of all men.  But it is true that the right has long defined itself in terms of its attack on the humanities and all that has developed under its aegis. In a sense, the right does have a good sense of its enemies. Although teaching the college kids to deconstruct Twelfth Night does not seem like it would threaten the larger structures of capitalism or patriarchy, historically, one of the important feeders into the civil rights movement for women in the seventies was, precisely, English departments at universities. In France, at the moment, post-colonial studies and gender studies are under attack by the usual suspects, because these threaten the premises of France’s neo-colonialist attitude to the South and, as well, promise to shake up the massive gender imbalances within French organizations.

Neoliberal culture is not just about University of Chicago economics. What makes it “neo” is that the culture tries to integrate the gains of the civil rights movement and the deregulated economy of global capitalism. This is an understudied part of the culture. At a certain point, the contradictions between these movements and the thrust of capitalism surface. They surface on the left and the right. On the right, we can see this surfacing in the use of “elites”. These elites are not defined by Capital – they are defined by the attempt, however weak, to continue the gains of the civil rights movement.

Sussman’s piece doesn’t go here, but it could. Sussman quotes the AEI’s Brian Cox in part of the article:

Navigating interpersonal relationships in a time of evolving gender norms and expectations “requires a level of emotional sensitivity that I think some men probably just lack, or they don’t have the experience,” he added. He had recently read about a high school creative writing assignment in which boys and girls were asked to imagine a day from the perspective of the opposite sex. While girls wrote detailed essays showing they had already spent significant time thinking about the subject, many boys simply refused to do the exercise, or did so resentfully. Mr. Cox likened that to heterosexual relationships today: “The girls do extra and the boys do little or nothing.”

What is this “doing”? It is imagining. It is narrating. It is the old, old business of singing songs and telling stories. Which, after finding food, drink and shelter is one of our oldest needs. Maslow’s ladder needs a redo. What happens when you strip the dignity from singing songs and telling stories?

Well, we are living in an experiment to find out.

Biden's foreign policy: let's bet everything on authoritarianism!

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